by Gabrielle Marceau
Mommy is not a film about me, but it is definitely a film made for me. Not for my mom, who would find it’s denouement unbelievable, but for people my age, too young yet to be parents. How else can you explain the soundtrack.
It reads to me like:
Celine Dion: 7, sincerely performing her songs for my parents in the living room, angry because they would never be able to fill the void with their attention.
Dido: 15, to be brave all my friends had taken their clothes off in my parents backyard. But one of us retreated to sit naked, in the dark of the living room and listen to a cover of White Flag on repeat, because it was sung by the best friend he loved more than he could handle.
Wonderwall: 18, the way my ex-boyfriend sang along to it in a bar in Hull (sang with that universal combo of guttural recognition and heady irony).
Lana Del Rey: 21, in love with no one but should have been medicated anyway when I got so lost in Park X I might have been reborn.
If this sounds painfully self involved, it’s because it is.
Steve is a bad kid; manic, enraged, emotional, violent. He turns on a dime with an obliterating chaos, buoyed by moments of glittering charm and slavish devotion. This is a fine performance, he's the kid you were too scared to admit you could love.
At the outset of the film, Dolan provides context by informing us that a law has passed which allows parents to relinquish responsibility of their kids to the state. This basically tells us the ending and, if I'm generous, allows us to spend the film wondering what kind of parent would do this.
Diane, Steve's mother struggles to make ends meet and care for her kid. Dolan takes great pains to tell us what kind of woman Diane is, the kind of woman who’s fridge contains a box of wine and nail polish and not much else.
As she lists off Steve’s issues to a kindly neighbour, Kyla, she casually mentions his attachment disorder. According to wikipedia, this is "a broad term intended to describe disorders of mood, behavior, and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary care giving figures in early childhood, resulting in problematic social expectations and behaviors". Aside from the run on sentence, this sounds semi legit.
I had waited for my friend in the lobby of the weirdest movie theater in Toronto (lost, I followed the smell of popcorn through a garden of real tropical plants on the third floor of an office/ retail complex). I find his lateness almost unbearable, not entirely unlike the way I sometimes find his general absence unbearable. The relationship between Steve and his mother is shaded with sex and brutally co-dependant. An excess supposedly spurned by a lack.
Lack of a father maybe? Early in the film, Steve spins wildly in circles, gripping the handle of a stolen grocery cart. As the cart jerks and lurches, Steve yells“Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy?” Steve is stuck between his desire to be the daddy and still being the kind of kid who plays with the grocery cart. This is probably the best image of male impotence I’ll see all year. Is it good enough to win Dolan the Foreign Language Oscar Canada longs for, the first since Les Invasions Barbares in 2003? That film made Montreal look much prettier - a nice tomb for the near dead - but in Mommy it’s flat, anonymous, and crumbling, but still a canvas for the living.
Dolan’s film seems governed by an inability to resist: the impossibly golden light dappled on Steve’s pouting face, the Dido song that bleats insistently over an entire scene (ending just as a literal door is shut), the artfully curated trash Dolan makes Diane wear on a date: bra straps, stack of bracelets, crimped hair extensions. Dolan’s style is realism tinted with useless, gratuitous magic. In making a film about characters struggling with unbridled emotions, Dolan has betrayed his own lack of control in his unquenchable desire for beauty. The other side of the beauty is disillusionment, because anything desired must be remote.
Anne Carson says that "The pleasure of love comes from desiring something that is distant and the pain comes from realization, first, that one is separated from the beloved [...]" Desire requires a kind of void, or rather, a vortex in which what the beloved provides, the proof of love and the fuel of desire, circle around an invisible axis line, replenishing the spiral and disappearing through a mouth. The vessel is never filled as it is made up of itself.
What the film did do is make me feel like a total wimp, faced with an overbearing, non normative presence, I wanted to flee the theatre (I was always afraid of the weird kid). Mommy leaves you inexplicably angry and drained. Speechless my friend and I took the bus back downtown. Our relationship is shaded with something, and mildly co-dependant. He hurt my feelings one night, too drunk, unaware. On the phone the next day Maisie described my reaction as “a little extra”. An excess spurned by a lack.
Weeks after seeing the film we were going home to our neglected families. I had hoped we would meet in the airport lounge, our flights were only an hour apart, but we didn’t. There was actually a second lounge for flights to the U.S, improbable considering how small the airport is. I thought of my friend sitting in a parallel, identical lounge. Drinking his own free latte, free package of cookies, sitting in an identical chair facing the same cardinal direction (north). Are we thinking the same things? Staring straight ahead, punch drunk, waiting for the planes that would take us on unparalleled lines.
Once my plane broke through the clouds I saw the sun rise and forgot briefly about everyone underneath. Here was so much space and no one was there.
Our connections aren’t really about the ways we intersect, but the spaces between that pull and remind us of our emptiness. We want each other precisely because we want each other. We are less without each other. We can’t really accept that we aren’t one. That he isn’t sitting in the same chair, eating the same cookies. He isn’t in my mind, I don’t control him. Desire takes on the burden of otherness and places it on our shoulders. All of a sudden you are a half, wandering around, looking for your other. It is necessarily so.
If you believe the psychoanalysts, at infancy we become aware that we are separate from our mothers (and everyone else) when we look in the mirror and see ourselves; alive and apart. Perhaps some trauma before the age of three could bring a child to this awareness too early, a permanent cleft in their sense of comfort. Like all those we love; before I knew him, I didn’t know I lacked him.
Mommy is one of those films that tell you: this person is truly living. As I write this, my roommate is listening to something loud and getting ready to go out. I know I’m welcome but haven’t been invited and so I wait impatiently for him to leave and end this purgatorial politeness. It’s most of us basics who cower in the in-between, Steve wouldn’t hesitate to impose himself on his loved ones, that boundary only painful when it’s pointed out that it exists. Like when his mother chastises him for stealing her a necklace and he almost kills her. Excess. Lack.
Only one word appeared in my mind during the scene where Diane, Steve and Kyla take a selfie: magic. And truly it is. This collective moment, ecstatic not only for it’s present togetherness but it’s promise of the future. That moment, embalmed, singular. The necessary distance required by their love is meaningless to the image, which binds them and blinds us.
Love is indelible, a brand. Once pierced you exist forever halved, forever lacking. The lover desires the beloved fiercely, and with knowledge that their love cannot last forever they wish to speed ahead to desire's resolution. This is why Diane relinquishes her motherhood, abandons Steve to the mother-state. Even if her wildest dreams came true from her most diligent efforts and Steve grew up solid, golden, happy, she would still be half a person (more so for having submitted her life to someone who would outlive her). Her act isn’t one of hope, as the film tries to convince you, it is pure, existential selfishness. An attempt to outsmart our tragic disposition to love and be cleaved.